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By U.S. Rep. Ron Kind
Nearly 25 years ago, a group of farmers in southwestern Wisconsin’s Coulee region came together at the county courthouse for an informational meeting to discuss the formation of the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP). Today, these farmers are part of what’s known as Organic Valley, the largest cooperative of organic farmers in the United States. These farmers work hard to provide not only a sustainable economic model for the agriculture industry, but also provide organic food options nationwide – a novel idea in the 1980s, but a staple in our grocery stores today.
Since 2000, the organic food industry has sold more than $700 billion dollars worth of products, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). In addition, an OTA survey showed for every $1 billion in retail sales of organic products, 21,000 additional jobs were created. While the organic food industry is creating jobs and energizing the economy, the farmers who make up Organic Valley are also increasingly focused on innovation, investing heavily in basic scientific research to expand and improve their business model.
For example, in 2008, three Organic Valley farmers received more than $100,000 in federal and state grants for renewable wind-energy projects. In addition, Organic Valley farmers created the Farmer Renewable Energy Program (FREP) to promote on-farm renewable energy projects and energy efficiency measures and to encourage sustainable agriculture viability through research, development, and education. As a result, since 1988 nearly 59 million pounds of synthetic nitrogen and approximately 950,000 pounds of herbicides and pesticides were kept off of our soils. Alongside these endeavors, Organic Valley farmers also use their own biodiesel from sunflower and camelina crops to power vehicles and equipment. The success of the FREP in combination with federal and state research grants demonstrates the positive impact public-private partnerships can have to help businesses succeed, moving our nation in a positive direction and maintaining our competitive edge globally.
As Vice Chair of the New Democrat Coalition and Co-Chair of the Task Force on Innovation and Competitiveness, I believe more companies can follow in Organic Valley’s footstep and benefit from investments in research and innovation. As a country, we must cultivate an environment that enables businesses large and small to thrive and grow in the global marketplace.
We cannot forget that it was only through federal intervention that we were able to level the playing field after the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1 symbolized the Soviet Union’s victory in beginning the Space Race. Congress, in bipartisan fashion, responded by doubling R&D spending and tripling support for basic research. Those investments in innovation are still bearing fruit today: the Apollo Program, the Internet, and touch screen technology, to name just a few. We must continue to build on the successful partnerships that have supported basic research on our college campuses and developed new innovations with the private sector.
Our businesses, particularly our small and medium-sized businesses, which have been leaders on economic growth and innovation, need assistance to access and to hire skilled employees and maintain growth in the long-run. Supporting basic and applied research programs will help launch startups and entrepreneurs as new economic engines. Providing increased access to capital, both through public markets and private sources of funding like venture capital, will help businesses develop new products, support a growing workforce and grow both at home and abroad. On top of that, support for research and development among American businesses is necessary to retaining our competitive edge. A commitment to policies that promote investments in R&D will help our businesses facilitate technological improvements, continue to innovate and better compete worldwide.
A likeminded coalition of Democratic Members of Congress, focused on the power of American ingenuity and innovation, the New Dems believe we can ensure American competitiveness by providing strong support for R&D. This will give greater consistency to America’s innovators and promote corporate investment in this vital area, helping solidify the public-private R&D relationship.
To that end, the New Dems promote polices that keep U.S. innovation closely aligned with U.S. manufacturing. We believe that what is researched and developed here should be made here. We also support leveraging these investments through public-private partnerships. For example, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program takes previously allocated research and development funding and makes sure a portion is designated for small companies with big ideas. SBIR-backed firms have been responsible for roughly 25 percent of the nation’s most crucial innovations and account for 38 percent of America’s patents according to a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. In fact, several other countries have modeled their own SBIR system based on ours.
With an increasingly competitive global economy, it’s more important than ever to advance policies that promote economic competitiveness and lay the foundation for the next generation to build on our success. A strong innovation agenda must include a strong partnership between the private sector and the federal government to spur greater private-sector growth. Even as we work to get our fiscal house in order, it is critical to foster the innovation that will ensure our continued economic prosperity and position in the global economy. To maintain our competitive edge, America must provide the right environment to promote innovation, strengthen entrepreneurship and foster basic scientific research to ensure America remains the most innovative, creative country in the world.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) is a member of the House Ways & Means Committee. In addition, he serves as Vice-Chair of the New Democrat Coalition, where he is co-chair of the Taskforce on Innovation, Competitiveness, and Tax Reform. Rep. Kind also serves as co-chair of the board of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank; co-chair of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus; and as a member of both the House Manufacturing Caucus and the House Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Caucus. He has been deeply involved in creating an innovation agenda focused on math and science education, supporting manufacturing and clean energy, and reforming our tax code to ensure America can compete in a 21st century global economy. He has received the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s “Legislator of the Year” Award.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind